were more uniformly honored in the early Christian era than Saints Perpetua
and Felicity. The two women were arrested and imprisoned, along with
three other Christians, in Punic or Phoenician Carthage in 203 A.D.
Perpetua was 22-year-old noblewoman with a son a few months old; Felicity
a slave with a child not yet born. Their crime was defying Emperor Septimus
Severus' (also of Phoenician Punic origin) prohibition of conversions
of their martyrdom and courage is one of the earliest historical accounts
of Christianity, and one of the most feminist. Read in African churches
for the next several centuries, it was treated as nearly equivalent
to scripture. (A full English translation appears in Musurillo's The
Acts of the Christian Martyrs [Oxford, 1972]; Butler's unabridged Lives
of the Saints contains lengthy excerpts.)
five (along with their instructor in faith) were being held awaiting
execution, Perpetua's father urged his favorite child to save her life
and life of her baby by renouncing her faith. "Father," she
answered, "do you see this vessel--waterpot or whatever it may
be?...Can it be called by any other name than what it is?"
also I cannot call myself by any other name than what I am--a Christian."
At a trial
shortly thereafter, Perpetua refused to offer a sacrifice for the prosperity
of the emperors. When the court asked "Are you a Christian?"
she answered, "Yes, I am," thereby condemning herself to death.
A few days
before the festival games, at which the martyrs would face wild beasts
in the coliseum, Perpetua had a dream in which she was transformed into
a man, and engaged in unarmed combat with an Egyptian (signifying the
devil). "I was lifted up into the air and began to strike him as
one who no longer trod the earth...I caught hold of his head and he
fell upon his face; and I trod on his head," she dreamt. The other
captives also had visions which fortified their courage.
meanwhile, had been afraid, that she would not suffer with the rest,
because Roman law forbade the execution of pregnant women. In answer
to her prayers, her child was born while she was in prison, and was
promptly adopted by a Christian couple.
had managed to convert their jailer to Christianity, and so the captives
were treated well in their final days.
turned their last meal into an agape, a lovefeast, and spoke of the
joy of their own sufferings--thereby astonishing most witnesses, and
day of the Games arrived, Perpetua and Felicity went to the amphitheater
"joyfully as though they were on their way to heaven," as
Perpetua sang a psalm of triumph. The guards attempted to force the
captives to wear robes consecrated to Roman gods, but Perpetua resisted
so fiercely that they were allowed to wear their own clothes. The three
male martyrs threatened the crowd, including the procurator who had
condemned them, with the judgement of God, thereby enraging the crowd.
the men, Saturnius, although prepared for martyrdom, was terrified of
bears. Saturnius was first exposed to a wild boar, which turned upon
its keeper, and promptly killed him. Saturnius was then tied up, and
exposed to a bear, which refused to come out of its den. As Saturnius
had hoped, he was quickly killed by a single bite from a leopard. As
he died, he said to his newly-converted jailer, "Farewell: keep
the faith and me in mind, and let these things not confound but confirm
heifer was sent against the women. The heifer tossed Perpetua, who got
up, straightened her hair, and helped Felicity regain her feet. Absorbed
in ecstasy, Perpetua was unaware that she had been thrown, and did not
believe it until Felicity showed her the marks on her body.
survived the animals, the women were to be executed. They exchanged
a final kiss of peace. A nervous gladiator tried to kill Perpetua, but
failed to finish the job until she guided the knife to her throat. "Perhaps
so great a woman...could not else have been slain except she willed
it," the Passion observes.
the execution in the Coliseum was intended as entertainment, and enjoyed
as such by most of the jeering crowd, some of the spectators, inspired
by the martyrs' fearlessness, became converts; nor were these spectators
the last people who would be encouraged by Perpetua and Felicity, who,
even at the cost of their lives, worshipped God and not the state. They
are celebrated on March 7.
lives of so many early martyrs shrouded in legend, we are fortunate
to have the record of the courage of Perpetua and Felicity from the
hand of Perpetua herself, her teacher Saturus, and others who knew them.
This account, known as "The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity,"
was so popular in the early centuries that it was read during liturgies.
year 203, Vibia Perpetua made the decision to become a Christian, although
she knew it could mean her death during Septimus' persecution. Her surviving
brother (another brother had died when he was seven) followed her leadership
and became a catechumen as well.
was frantic with worry and tried to talk her out of her decision. We
can easily understand his concern. At 22 years old, this well-educated,
high-spirited woman had every reason to want to live -- including a
baby son who was still nursing. We know she was married, but since her
husband is never mentioned, many historians assume she was a widow.
answer was simple and clear. Pointing to a water jug, she asked her
father, "See that pot lying there? Can you call it by any other
name than what it is?"
answered, "Of course not." Perpetua responded, "Neither
can I call myself by any other name than what I am -- a Christian."
so upset her father that he attacked her. Perpetua reports that after
that incident she was glad to be separated from him for a few days --
even though that separation was the result of her arrest and imprisonment.
was arrested with four other catechumens including two slaves Felicity
and Revocatus, and Saturninus and Secundulus. Their catechist, Saturus,
had already been imprisoned before them.
baptized before taken to prison. Perpetua was known for her gift of
"the Lord's speech" and receiving messages from God. She tells
us that at the time of her baptism she was told to pray for nothing
but endurance in the face of her trials.
was so crowded with people that the heat was suffocating. There was
no light anywhere and Perpetua "had never known such darkness."
The soldiers who arrested and guarded them pushed and shoved them without
any concern. Perpetua had no trouble admitting she was very afraid,
but in the midst of all this horror her most excruciating pain came
from being separated from her baby.
slave, Felicity was even worse off for Felicity suffered the stifling
heat, overcrowding, and rough handling while being eight months pregnant.
who ministered to the prisoners paid the guards so that the martyrs
would be put in a better part of the prison. There her mother and brother
were able to visit Perpetua and bring her baby to her. When she received
permission for her baby to stay with her "my prison suddenly became
a palace for me." Once more her father came to her, begging her
to give in, kissing her hands, and throwing himself at her feet. She
told him, "We lie not in our own power but in the power of God."
and the others were taken to be examined and sentenced, her father followed,
pleading with her and the judge. The judge, out of pity, also tried
to get Perpetua to change her mind, but when she stood fast, she was
sentenced with the others to be thrown to the wild beasts in the arena.
Her father was so furious that he refused to send her baby back to Perpetua.
Perpetua considered it a miracle that her breasts did not become inflamed
from lack of nursing.
praying in prison, she suddenly felt "gifted with the Lord's speech"
and called out the name of her brother Dinocrates who had died at seven
of gangrene of the face, a disease so disfiguring that those who should
have comforted him left him alone. Now she saw a vision that he was
even more alone, in a dark place, hot and thirsty -- not in the eternal
joy she hoped for him. She began to pray for Dinocrates and though she
was put in stocks every day, her thoughts were not on her own suffering
but on her prayers to help her brother. Finally she had another vision
in which she saw Dinocrates healed and clean, drinking from a golden
bowl that never emptied.
Felicity was also in torment. It was against the law for pregnant women
to be executed. To kill a child in the womb was shedding innocent and
sacred blood. Felicity was afraid that she would not give birth before
the day set for their martyrdom and her companions would go on their
journey without her. Her friends also didn't want to leave so "good
a comrade" behind.
before the execution, Felicity went into a painful labor. The guards
made fun of her, insulting her by saying, "If you think you suffer
now, how will stand it when you face the wild beasts?" Felicity
answered them calmly, "Now I'm the one who is suffering, but in
the arena Another will be in me suffering for me because I will be suffering
for him." She gave birth to a healthy girl who was adopted and
raised by one of the Christian women of Carthage.
of the prison began to recognize the power of the Christians and the
strength and leadership of Perpetua. In some cases this helped the Christians:
the warden let them have visitors -- and later became a believer. But
in other cases it caused superstitious terror, as when one officer refused
to let them get cleaned up on the day they were going to die for fear
they'd try some sort of spell. Perpetua immediately spoke up, "We're
supposed to die in honor of Ceasar's birthday. Wouldn't it look better
for you if we looked better?" The officer blushed with shame at
her reproach and started to treat them better.
was a feast the day before the games so that the crowd could see the
martyrs and make fun of them. But the martyrs turned this all around
by laughing at the crowd for not being Christians and exhorting them
to follow their example.
new Christians and their teacher went to the arena (the fifth, Secundulus,
had died in prison) with joy and calm. Perpetua in usual high spirits
met the eyes of everyone along the way. We are told she walked with
"shining steps as the true wife of Christ, the darling of God."
at the arena tried to force Perpetua and the rest to dress in robes
dedicated to their gods, Perpetua challenged her executioners. "We
came to die out of our own free will so we wouldn't lose our freedom
to worship our God. We gave you our lives so that we wouldn't have to
worship your gods." She and the others were allowed to keep their
were attacked by bears, leopards, and wild boars. The women were stripped
to face a rabid heifer. When the crowd, however, saw the two young women,
one of whom had obviously just given birth, they were horrified and
the women were removed and clothed again. Perpetua and Felicity were
thrown back into the arena so roughly that they were bruised and hurt.
Perpetua, though confused and distracted, still was thinking of others
and went to help Felicity up. The two of them stood side by side as
all five martyrs had their throats cut.
last words were to her brother: "Stand fast in the faith and love